A little-known swath of open space in west Petaluma is earning a spot on a national map as it serves as a site for a nationwide citizen science project aimed to track climate change.
Beginning last month, a group of 10 volunteers armed with clipboards, binoculars and data sheets began to observe the changes and behaviors of a handful of plants and birds as well as an animal at Paula Lane Open Space Preserve, logging their findings into the USA National Phenology Network “Nature’s Notebook” database, which gives scientists access to aggregated data from participants around the nation to inform their research.
A team of about five volunteers is also undergoing monthly observations of the migratory cliff swallow population that makes its home each year at the Petaluma River Bridge from March until August, according to Susan Kirks, a Petaluma resident who’s spearheading the local efforts sponsored by the Santa Rosa-based Madrone Audubon Society.
Scientists say phenology – which is the study of seasonal transformations in plants and animals and how those changes are impacted by climate and seasonal variations — could be an important indicator of the impacts of climate change.
In some cases, changes to climate might result in an ecological “mismatch,” where differences in historical weather patterns might mean that the timing of one natural event — such as the budding of a flower – would no longer coincide with the arrival of a migratory bird that depends on that plant to survive, knocking the ecosystem out of sync.
The observed long-term trends toward shorter and milder winters and earlier than normal spring thaws can throw off the timing of key events, potentially triggering an overabundance of pests and a lack of food for certain species, or a longer blooming season for plants that cause allergies in humans, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Using data from the “Nature’s Notebook” as a springboard, the USA Phenology Network also fosters scientific research communities and the development of resources, such as maps and visualization tools that collect and share data related to trends and phenology.
According to the data from the organization, there are more than 2,000 registered researchers, students and volunteers tracking 10,973 organisms spread across more than 1,400 sites in the U.S., with four registered observation sites in Petaluma, including the open space and the bridge.
The 11.22-acre Paula Lane preserve, which is home to more than 100 documented avian species as well as an abundance of plant and animal life, is the perfect landing spot for the organized local efforts, according to Kirks, the Madrone Audubon Society president and one of the founding members of the Paula Lane Action Network, a nonprofit that advocated for the preservation of the land.
As part of the project that kicked off the week of May 16, trained volunteers spend about an hour and a half at the preserve once a month to record observations on nine bird species — including several that have been identified by the National Audubon Society as being threatened by climate change — as well as four native and non-native plant species, while also tracking the behavior of the mule deer that populate the land, Kirks said.